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Austin Water audit released after 3 city-wide boil water notices in recent years

The external University of Texas audit was the result of a city council resolution after last year's notice in February.

AUSTIN, Texas — The KVUE Defenders are getting a better idea of what Austin Water could do to fix problems, as the utility company issued three city-wide boil notices in just four years.

The University of Texas at Austin has released a report after its audit of Austin Water and service interruptions. The audit is a result of a city council resolution authored by Councilmember Alison Alter calling for an external audit after the boil water notice of February 2022.

This report focused on issues at one plant – the Ullrich Water Treatment plant – and most of the problems it uncovered are tied to a familiar issue we've heard at a lot of employers – not enough staff and not enough training.

The Ullrich treatment plant was a the center of four of the five big water issues we've dealt with since 2018. The causes have ranged from being weather-related to being linked to human error.

The audit found that Ullrich can handle day-to-day problems and the low likelihood of extreme problems, like a boil notice, don't warrant an overhaul of infrastructure.

But the bigger problem is with staffing and morale. Staffing shortages at Austin's water treatment plants range from 28% to 30%, so morale is low among operating and maintenance teams.   

At the time of the audit, there was no single head of operations at Ullrich, so the auditors recommended making that hierarchy clearer.

They also recommend that Austin Water work more closely with the City's communications staff during extreme events so they can get the word out to the media and the public faster.

Austin Water says said it's already implementing a lot of changes to address this, such as increasing leadership training for higher-ups at Ullrich and working with more than 100 recruiting agencies to ramp up staffing.

This audit report will be presented to the city council next Wednesday morning.

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